TW: this article discusses mental illness and suicide attempts.
When considering parallels with our present situation, in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has changed the course of many of our lives, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is perhaps not the book many of us would call to mind. Plath’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, set in the north-east of the United States in the 1950s, details Esther Greenwood’s decline into insanity as she struggles against the ‘bell jar’ of social conventions imposed upon her by American culture. The Bell Jar depicts the difficulties of being a talented or creative woman in 1950s America, in which most people believe that a woman’s primary role in life is to be a wife and mother. Unable to make herself conform to this model of femininity, Esther finds herself at odds with the culture she lives in. Excluded from society by her perceptions of it but unable to break free of its pressures, she eventually tries to escape by attempting suicide.
Though the shape of the bell jar may have changed in the twenty-first century, the pressure to fit into a socially prescribed role can still be an oppressive force. People are still praised for the achievements that fit society’s definition of success, leading us to believe that happiness results from fulfilling the role society expects of you. University, in particular, is seen as a time where you are supposed to achieve successes that prepare you for the future, whilst you are simultaneously expected to be living “the best years of your life”. However, as for Esther, the reality for many students is very different.
Esther begins the novel in New York, where she is supposed to be making the most of a lucrative placement at an important magazine; however, she struggles to feel anything other than numbness and disillusionment both with her life and the state of American society. At the end of her placement, she fails to get into the writing course she wants and is forced to return home for the rest of the summer. In the small town of her childhood, she comes into conflict with her mother and the people who knew her as a child, who have very different aspirations for her future and no longer really know her. Her mother expects her to be ordered and reasonable whilst her mental health declines further and further, leading Esther to resent her mother as the embodiment of the repressive attitude of her society.
Over sixty years after Esther’s fictional departure from New York, students in the UK in 2020 had to leave university abruptly and with little warning due to the threat of Covid-19. The months that followed were characterised by enforced social isolation in our childhood homes, where many people may have had to confront the distance between the hopes and dreams of their childhoods and the realities of their lives as young adults. The things that people had hoped for, such as placements or internships, no longer seemed real in this new reality. Instead, many people were compelled to spend much longer periods of time with only their thoughts for company.
When Esther returns home in The Bell Jar, the frustration of loneliness becomes even more acute as she realises that she is not understood at all by those around her. No one is even willing to recognise that she is ill. Her frustration at being unable to fit in with the world she lives in leads her to try to drown herself, enacting the idea of being “swallowed up” by the world. After this fails, she takes an overdose and buries herself in the basement of her childhood home, symbolically enacting her return to the ground she came from, before society tried to mould her into someone else. Though Esther’s attempted suicide is tragic, it ironically gives her the catharsis she needs to become freer from the pressures of her society and become her own person.
The Bell Jar is a novel that can speak to anyone feeling isolated and oppressed by the constraints of society, even in a very different cultural context. In 2021, as the pandemic continues and we have to continue to step back from society to an extent, The Bell Jar provides key insights into the importance of taking time to find what truly makes you happy, rather than what fits into society’s definition of happiness, in order to protect our mental health.
Illustration: Samantha Fulton